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K12 leaders: Hand over the reins

Shifting from a school-centered mindset to a learner-centered one
Randy Ziegenfuss, Superintendent, Salisbury Township School District
Randy Ziegenfuss, Superintendent, Salisbury Township School District

Consider what the world will be like in 2031 when today’s kindergartners graduate high school.

“We don’t know exactly what it’ll look like, but there are a couple things we do know,” says Randy Ziegenfuss, superintendent of Salisbury Township School District (Pennsylvania).

“For people in that world to be successful, they’re going to have to be pretty self-directed and agile, capable of moving from one career to another.”

The current education system, which places much of the control of learning with the school system, not the learner, will underprepare students for that future, Ziegenfuss says.

“The world is changing through technology,” he says. “We’re going to have to make more choices on our own. Learner-centered education is built on that—starting with the learner and having them decide what path they want to take.”

Ziegenfuss is a featured presenter for the Future of Education Technology Conference, to be held January 27-30, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.

He shares three tips on how leaders can shift mindsets—and more agency—to learners.

1. Start with a clear vision of where you want to go. In Salisbury Township School District, where staff began experimenting with personalized, learner-centered learning three years ago, change started with a year-long discussion about the knowledge and skills that students need by the time they graduate.

Stakeholders created a vision document and a graduate profile. “We looked at what would get us to those outcomes, and that’s where we got to personalized learning and learner-centered education,” Ziegenfuss says. “If you don’t create a vision at the outset, you’re going to end up with pockets of innovation, and it’ll be haphazard.”

2. Consider the role technology plays. Technology can be a powerful learning tool in a learner-centered environment. “I’m not talking about putting a kid in front of a computer and letting them do test prep,” Ziegenfuss says. “Who has the agency in that?”

Technology can contribute to powerful learning experiences, for example, when it connects students to their communities to solve real-world problems that are relevant to the learner, he says.

Include technology staff in these conversations, Ziegenfuss says. “The tech department can’t support a learner-centered environment if they don’t know what it is.”

When IT leaders understand the importance of giving students access to the tools they need to pursue powerful learning experiences, they have an open mind to new technologies.

For instance, in Salisbury, when students came to staff and expressed an interest in drone technology, the district’s technology director worked through liability and insurance issues to help the students start a drone club.

“It comes back to our tech director knowing that our mission is powerful learning, and always thinking, ‘How do we make that happen?’” Ziegenfuss says.

3. Practice what you preach. “You can’t throw something out to staff and expect the whole system to change overnight,” Ziegenfuss says. Leaders need to practice being learner-centered. Change may start with a small group of curious teachers.

“We start small. Over time, those folks are taking those mindsets and they’re trying things out in the classroom, experimenting, failing and reflecting,” Ziegenfuss says. “As leaders, we need to give them the space to take those new risks.” 


Jennifer Herseim is an editor for LRP Publications and program chair for Inclusion and Special Education at the Future of Education Technology Conference.